This pioneering contribution to visual culture studies reveals how banana plantation workers and their families used photography to visually assert their identities and rights as citizens, despite being outmatched by a powerful multinational corporation
In the early twentieth century, the Boston-based United Fruit Company controlled the production, distribution, and marketing of bananas, the most widely consumed fresh fruit in North America. So great was the company’s power that it challenged the sovereignty of the Latin American and Caribbean countries in which it operated, giving rise to the notion of company-dominated “banana republics.”
In A Camera in the Garden of Eden, Kevin Coleman argues that the “banana republic” was an imperial constellation of images and practices that was checked and contested by ordinary Central Americans. Drawing on a trove of images from four enormous visual archives and a wealth of internal company memos, literary works, immigration records, and declassified US government telegrams, Coleman explores how banana plantation workers, women, and peasants used photography to forge new ways of being while also visually asserting their rights as citizens. He tells a dramatic story of the founding of the Honduran town of El Progreso, where the United Fruit Company had one of its main divisional offices, the rise of the company now known as Chiquita, and a sixty-nine day strike in which banana workers declared their independence from neocolonial domination. In telling this story, Coleman develops a new set of conceptual tools and methods for using images to open up fresh understandings of the past, offering a model that is applicable far beyond this pathfinding study.
- Prologue. Foto Arte and Corporate Seeing
- One. Photography as a Practice of Self-Forging
- Two. Visualizing Progress
- Three. Vaudeville and Empire
- Four. An Egalitarian Optic
- Five. Transnational Imagescapes
- Six. In Visibility in an Exceptional Space
- Seven. Photographs of a Prayer
- Eight. Possibility Eruption Exists
- Nine. Between Is and Ought
- Epilogue. A Bridge Called Democracy
Foto Arte and Corporate Seeing
In the early 1930s on the Caribbean coast of Central America in a town called El Progreso, a domestic servant posed for a studio photographer named Rafael Platero Paz.
As she leaned against the front porch rail, her demeanor was serious. With her gaze slightly askance, she watched the photographer, who was also her employer. Her clothes were neat and clean. Her earrings were modest, her sandals, practical. She was employed by Platero Paz to help his family with the cooking and cleaning. She was probably around seventeen years old when he took this picture. So many years later, no one in the family is able to remember her name. For whom was the photo made? For the worker herself? Or was the photographer simply testing out a new camera on the closest available subject?
In the background, we see the house of Platero Paz’s neighbors, Pedro Amaya and his wife, Gertrudis (everyone called her Tulita). The laundry drying on the line was probably hand-washed by Tulita, or by a young woman whose social status was similar to that of the one depicted here. Platero Paz took this picture on the veranda of a house that he rented from Manuel María García, a wealthy Mexican lumberman and local benefactor. This was the place that Platero Paz called home. Above the door facing the street, he tacked up a shingle that announced the name of his business: Foto Arte— Naturalidad, Arte y Belleza.
Inside, he had a studio and darkroom where I lived for several months while I was looking into the histories of images and politics in El Progreso. Throughout the twentieth century, El Progreso thrived as a town that serviced the vast banana plantations of the fertile Aguán Valley of northern Honduras. Situated near the industrial city of San Pedro Sula and connected by railroad to the port of Tela, El Progreso has two excellent access points to the world economy and to the cultural worlds pulsating beyond the shores of Honduras.
For a relatively small city, El Progreso has had a disproportionate impact on the life and culture of the nation. Smallholders and mahogany traders founded the town in 1893. By the 1920s, the United Fruit Company had acquired much of the fertile land across the Caribbean coast of Central America. In 1954, workers for the United Fruit Company, now known as Chiquita Brands International, went on strike for sixty-nine days. The town of El Progreso served as a primary base of support for the striking workers. In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of subsistence farmers, or campesinos, organized a massive and relatively successful movement for land reform. From 1926 to 1983, Rafael Platero Paz was there to photographically document each of these social transformations.
He was also there to make more mundane images, like the one of this domestic worker leaning on a rail of his front porch. But she is not the only person who is pictured here. The young fellow wearing the ball cap is Ricardo Platero, one of the photographer’s sons. The boy “shouldn’t be” in the photo. And if he does appear, he “should not” accentuate the theatricality of this photographic event. As he watches his father take a picture, young Ricardo Platero’s presence in the frame denaturalizes the resulting image, underscoring that the photographer did not simply “capture” and “record” everyday life. With his camera, he intervened in it.
The simple fact that this image exists points to the way that photography can be used by otherwise marginalized people to make modest claims to dignity and to thereby create new ways of thinking, speaking, and acting. In this particular picture, a young woman who was largely excluded from social and political power negotiates with the photographer, who stands for an unreturnable gaze that she confronts. She participated in making this image. And even if she was just pretending for the sake of the camera, in doing so, she was elaborating an intelligible, readable sense of herself. Through photographs such as this one, people who had been abandoned by state and corporate power were able to create structures of meaning in which their experiences and social positions were revalued. Thus photography enabled the excluded, like this domestic worker, to see themselves in a new light and to make themselves visible to others. It allowed people with little power or influence to rearrange the signs of their exclusion and purported inferiority such that they could then see themselves, and others could see them, as worthy of respect.
The Gaze of a Corporation
If the picture that Rafael Platero Paz took of the young woman in her goto-church clothes is about self-forging in the midst of multiple male gazes, a United Fruit Company photograph of banana workers lined up outside their barracks is about microscopic aspects of imperialism.
A condensation of the intimacies of commercial empire can be found in this image from the Medical Department’s annual report of 1929, which renders what it deems a “Typical Scene During Malaria Field-Surveys.” The photograph is “typical” in that the company implemented the same malariacontrol measures throughout its divisions in Latin America and the Caribbean. As a technician for one of United Fruit’s divisions in Honduras notes in the report, “In our efforts to effect a control that would materially reduce sickness, and increase labor efficiency and earning power, we have adopted the plan of making routine blood examinations of all inhabitants in camps and treating all those found positive for malaria.” This wide shot portrays a certain instrumental mode of seeing, one whose first premise is that healthier workers are a means to increased profits. As the caption suggests, the photo merely reproduces and makes visible from afar a “scene” that is already a spectacle in the company’s camps. Near the center of the compositional space, a man in a bow tie sits behind a table as workers gather around him.
The company sought to reduce the incidence of illnesses specific to the tropics and to disentangle climate and race, reading the symptoms and signs of disease from the bodies, fluids, and corpses of its employees. Studying how abnormal conditions affect the human organism did not require that banana production be halted, and could even make it more efficient. As the company’s technician explains, “We have found that the surveys and the treatment of the individuals found positive can be carried out on a large scale in conjunction with the daily routine work—systematic effort, efficient cooperation, and hard work being the essentials for success. A rapid worker can collect 500 to 800 thick films in one day; and the only assistance necessary is to have someone record the names of the subjects as the bloods are taken and to give the films a corresponding serial number.”For the company, its plantations were not simply a place for growing bananas, but a giant clinic in which the workers were specimens, not subjects; they were examples, transitory bodies that carried diseases, physical and ideational.
Beyond any individual case of illness, the company’s gaze moved across its plantations, from Cuba and Jamaica to Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. The United Fruit Company explicitly compared its medical achievements with those of the British colonial army in India, the US Army and Navy, the Panama Canal Zone, the Sumatra plantations, and the Rand Mines of South Africa.
Through medical interventions, United Fruit insinuated itself into the banana workers’ everyday lives. In the company’s view, malaria was “a serious and constant menace to the health and progress of communities located in areas where the infection is endemic.” As an “epidemic,” malaria was a collective phenomenon afflicting large swaths of its labor force. Controlling malaria required a multiple gaze, capable of cross-checking viewpoints, revisiting the camps after determined intervals, and compelling workers to submit to additional blood tests to finally isolate and treat its object of sight. The medicine used by the United Fruit Company to treat the epidemics that afflicted its employees had to be supplemented by a coercive apparatus of farm overseers and foremen who were themselves backed up by regional police and military forces. The company took the malaria survey depicted in the photograph above to be crucial to its control over the disease, systematically surveying its ports and all of its labor camps four times a year. “The overseer of a farm is notified one day ahead, so that he can have his people ready. He knows the working population of his district, including the members of the families of laborers; and we prepare sufficient slides for blood smears, according to his estimations.” Through such measures, the company reported that 86 percent of the total population of its Panama division submitted to quarterly blood tests, enabling it to reduce Capital’s surplus-oriented gaze transformed the worker into an object of observation and a site for improving upon existing medical treatments and the year-to-year balance sheet.
From health policies to disciplining its workers, the company used the same structures of oversight to create a labor force that could efficiently produce bananas. Education and the restructuring of workers’ lives were crucial to this endeavor: “We learned to realize that, without active cooperation on the part of the people, the work is only partially successful; and it is a matter of time, effort and patience before the masses can be made to understand the benefits of such a campaign.”Thus United Fruit sought to enlist knowledge producers—from universities such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and McGill to the Rockefeller Institute and the US Public Health Service—against the pathogens and the ignorance of the inhabitants of its plantations. From this scene of a malaria field survey, the thick smears of the workers’ blood would be subjected to another kind of seeing, under a microscope operated by a company agent empowered to name the disease and to thereby initiate a course of treatment that would place designated workers under more intensified scrutiny. Hence the authority of companyphysicians and medical researchers derived not only from the social and material apparatus that supported their looking but also from the systematic methods they employed as part of an enterprise that builds knowledge through the accretion of microscopic observations. This way of seeing and the truths that it produced were harnessed to maximize productivity on the company’s banana plantations.
Yet not only did these malaria field surveys harness science for corporate ends, they also reflected a slow and steady thinking about techniques of observation and how an enterprise could practice a better, more systematic way of seeing. As United Fruit scientists attempted to reshape nature, they were refining their own abilities, and the capacity of the company, to more efficiently extract bananas out of tropical soils by improving their methods of observing, identifying, and influencing what went on at a level that remained inaccessible to the unassisted human eye. In other words, like the photograph that Rafael Platero Paz took of the young woman on his front porch, this picture of a malaria field survey is also about self-sculpting. Making this photograph de-automatized a certain way of seeing and produced a representation of the company’s systematic methods for detecting malarial larvae.
These two photographs are allegories for the story that follows. The photo that Rafael Platero Paz took of a smartly dressed domestic servant posing on his front porch highlights how ordinary people used photography as a means of self-forging, reworking the relationship between their social ascriptions of identity and their chosen appearance before a camera. This was about people presenting their best selves to the world. In contrast, the photo of a United Fruit Company malaria field survey emblematizes a technical use of photography that was central to the company’s profit-oriented vision of land and labor on its plantations. The company used photography to refine production processes, to demonstrate its scientific methods, and to coordinate between its headquarters in Boston and its various divisions throughout the tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean. These two uses of photography collided with each other in El Progreso and, more broadly, in the history of modern capitalism. Indeed, any account of the production of a commodity in our era will also entail a parallel, but often hidden, story of the workers producing that commodity. What is true for bananas grown in Central America is no less true for iPhones manufactured in China. The “unconscious optics” of the camera, to borrow Walter Benjamin’s metaphor, reveal the rationalization of landscapes and the orchestration of the movements of workers.8 Yet that same mechanical recording device also enables the recovery of the acts of laborers producing themselves as citizens and self-emancipating subjects.
“Offering at once a visual as well as political history, Coleman breaks new methodological ground in revealing the imaginative dimensions of social power. A tour de force.”
Greg Grandin, author of The Empire of Necessity and Fordlandia
“A Camera in the Garden of Eden is a thorough study of the formation of a “banana republic” against a series of acts of resistance performed by workers who insisted on their right to be recognized as co-citizens. Based on a study of a variety of photographic archives, Coleman provides a lucid and powerful account of the 1954 strike and convincingly presents the civil claims and gestures involved in the strike as no less than a declaration of independence. By joining the many who used photography as part of their struggle, the imperial camera’s shutter is reactivated—one can no longer separate the study of colonies from the study of the sovereign democracies that ran them. This continuity makes Coleman’s book a must for every scholar of imperialism.”
Ariella Azoulay, author of The Civil Contract of Photography and Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography
“This is a brilliant work, an extraordinary study that will become a model for historians (and scholars from other fields) who wish to incorporate photography rigorously into their analyses. The author’s erudition and his capacity to tease out meanings make this work applicable to all of Latin America (and other neocolonial states), as well as obligatory for anyone who wishes to write intelligently about photography. Although I have worked on the question of photography and history for more than forty years, I can think of no work that is in any way comparable to this book.”
John Mraz, author of Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons